Sometimes people ask me for the secret of success. We live in a world of fantasy where people want magic formulae for everything. Let me tell you the good news. It is not a secret, but it is a magic formula. Focus + Investment + Consistency. Works every time.

I have given it the acronym, FIKR – K from the phonetic pronunciation of Consistency (Konsistency). As for the R – well, we’ll get to it. Just remember FIKR.

One of the most famous cases of FIKR in action is that of Dashrath Manjhi, a poor villager in Bihar, who literally carved a road out of a mountain. When his wife died tragically, because he was unable to get her to a hospital in time thanks to the fact that he had to go around a mountain to get to the main road, he decided to cut the mountain and build a road. He carved a path 110 meters long, and 9.1 meters wide to form a road through the rocks in Gehlour Hill so that nobody else would need to suffer the same fate as his wife and he had to. It took him, working with a chisel and hammer, 22 years. He did this without surveying equipment or experience, drone photographs or any technology, explosives or heavy equipment. You can read more about him here

What was his secret? Focus + Investment + Consistency. Works every time.

In 1983, I had just returned from Guyana and joined the tea planting industry in the Anamallais. On my first annual vacation, I attended a two-week residential, experiential learning workshop on Applied Behavioural Science by the Indian Society of Applied Behavioural Science (ISABS), in Jaipur. I found it very beneficial and was impressed by the potential to help people that lay in this line of work. I was particularly impressed by Mr. Aroon Joshi whose facilitation enabled me not only to understand myself better but to resolve some issues which had been bothering me. Aroon has been my dear friend and mentor ever since. The long and short of this was that I decided that I would make training, my profession. I was a tea planter. And I wanted to make a career in training. Sounds crazy. It was. How did I do it? That’s what I want to share with you. I hope you will be able to benefit from the lessons I learnt in my life.

Before I go into the how, let me tell you what I did since then, so that you have a complete picture in your mind. From the time you saw a young tea planter, sitting on the floor in an ISABS Lab (that is how it worked), agonizing over his work relationships, you would have seen him single-mindedly focused on learning how to train, to taking some very hard decisions and risks which would have left many, freaked out. You would have seen him speak to his first client and stake his reputation in his pitch. You would have seen him succeed and fail but succeed more and never fail at the same thing twice. In short, you would have seen him learning. Learning all the time. Enjoying learning, which enabled him to take ever higher risks. You would have seen him challenging himself and doing things which most people in any line of work, never do i.e. write thirty-six books. Today, I have trained over 200,000 people on three continents from practically every nationality, race and walk of life.

From where I started in training, I specialized in leadership development. That is what excited me. To see people come in, looking like something off the clothesline and walk out, straight and tall with a glint in their eye and to know that I’d had something to do with that. Over the years, now almost 40, several times I have had people come up to me in an airport or in a restaurant and say, “I don’t know if you remember me (I almost never do) but I attended your workshop and it changed my life.” I consider myself fortunate that this has happened to me more than once, because even once is enough for a lifetime, to know that you made a difference to someone.

In leadership development, I super-specialized in family business consulting (wrote, The Business of Family Business) and entrepreneurship development (wrote, An Entrepreneur’s Dairy) and then started a podcast called, “Leadership is a Personal Choice”, (wrote another book by that name) which has a global footprint, from China to the Americas with Asia, Europe (except Greenland) and Africa in between. Maybe there is nobody listening to my podcast in Greenland because Trump wants to buy it and they’re all holding their breath.

Leadership is a Personal Choice, podcast global footprint

How did this happen? Focus + Investment + Consistency. Works every time.

To return to 1983, I made my way back to the Anamallais from Jaipur, taking the Pink City Express to Delhi and then the Rajdhani Express to Chennai. Then the Nilgiri Express to Coimbatore and the bus ride to Valpari, up the Aliyar Ghat’s forty hairpin bends. Tamilnadu Transport Corporation bus. Nothing fancy. The big task in it being to ensure that you get a window seat but stay upwind of anyone with motion sickness. That last one being a matter of luck, more than anything else. All through that journey and every waking moment thereafter, my single thought was, ‘How can I become a leadership trainer?’

The first thing that I did was to write on a large sheet of paper, with a thick marker, “In the next five years, I want to be a globally recognized leadership trainer.” Hindsight tells me that I was a bit off as regards the time but made good the rest of it. The timeline was very useful because it helped me to keep focused and gave me a sense of urgency. A goal without a timeline is a wish. Timelines are critical to success.

The big problem was (and still is, to this day) that there was no formal course or degree that I could take. Especially as training is about the most hands-on thing that there is, learning to train meant that you needed some unsuspecting souls to practice on. My being in tea planting instead of in HR (used to be called Industrial Relations in those days) didn’t help. So, I did two things. I read every book on training that I could lay my hands on and I practiced on my workers and staff. Not in formal classes because I didn’t have the opportunity to do that, but every day at work. The way that happened was that I would apply something that I had learnt, unknown to them, then I would watch for reactions, mine and theirs and record them. That was my feedback loop on what worked and what didn’t. I had (still do) a very good memory and I augmented that with taking notes as soon as I was able to. I used to carry a small notebook in my shirt pocket and would write down key words. To this day I can tell you that the pocket notebook is the fastest way to record and access any information and outperforms every gadget you can imagine.

I took every psychometric test that I could and then wrote an analysis of the report compared to my own understanding of myself. That helped me to understand psychometric testing very well. I am one of those who believe that it is a tool and not a secret weapon which enables the interviewer to look deep into the interviewee’s soul without his knowledge. All these notes resulted in a couple more books. Notes are an amazingly powerful aid to self-development. They enable you to reflect objectively on what had happened and see what options you had at the time, which you used or didn’t and decide how to behave in the future. Reflection needs a cool head, free from the pressure of emotions that is usual in the heat of the moment. For most of us, after the incident, we forget details and so when we have time to think about it all, we don’t have data. Keeping notes helps to recall the data so that our conceptual take on what happened and what to do later, is much sounder and more accurate. 

Another thing I did was to enroll in ISABS’s Professional Development Program, which is a four-year distance learning program in Applied Behavioral Science, in which you learn how to facilitate group learning, while learning about yourself. It is a very rigorous course and I had some of the best teachers in the course of it. Udai Pareek, Somnath Chattopadhyay, Aroon Joshi. I also learned from Pulin Garg and Gourango Chattopadhyay. Very rewarding. That culminated in me being inducted into ISABS as a Professional Member. While I was doing all this, I was in a full-time job managing a tea estate (for 7 years) and a rubber estate (for 3 years), in which I was fully accountable for business results without any allowances for my self-inflicted learning goals. For those who may not know what ‘managing a tea estate’ means; an average tea estate in the Anamallais has an area of 400 hectares (multiply by 2.47 for acres), a labor force of about 800, a tea factory, supervisors and staff totaling to about 20 and 2 or 3 Assistant Managers. Sometimes also a resident doctor for the estate hospital. All these were the responsibility of the Manager. The workers and Staff were all unionized and sometimes, highly militant. Since the estates were in Tamilnadu, and I am from Hyderabad, I needed to learn a totally new language, Tamil which I did to a level of expertise of a native speaker. I won’t go into a Manager’s daily routine because that is not in the scope of this article. But this should suffice to give you an idea that there was not a moment to spare as far as I was concerned.

The next challenge was to get hands-on experience in training. For this I will be eternally grateful to my wonderful friends who allowed me to be a fly-on-the-wall in their training sessions. However, what that meant was that I would get a letter telling me that so-and-so was going to be doing a training session from this date to that, in this city or the other. I lived, as I mentioned, in the Anamallais in Tamilnadu. The train station was in Coimbatore, which was a four-and-a-half-hour bus ride from where I lived, down the forty-hairpin bends of the Aliyar Ghat. Then the train journey, third class (a plank for a bed) to the city that I was going to. Usually those journeys meant anything from 24-36 hours or more. In that city, I would stay in the cheapest hotel that I could find, in some cases, the stuff of nightmares. The room the size of a closet, bathroom shared between several rooms and mosquitoes galore. Food off street vendors or small cafeterias and no pay. The trainer who invited me to attend his/her class was already doing me a favor. To expect him/her or their client to pay me was out of the question. I would arrive before anyone else. Sit quietly in the back of the room and take notes. Be the gofer-boy for the trainer. And at the end of the day, I would have a debrief session with the trainer where I would share my notes, ask questions, explore alternative ways of teaching or handling exercises and games or fielding questions. After the session, back to the station to retrace my steps back home. From 1983-93, I did this in all my vacation time. I negotiated an additional fifteen days leave-without-pay from my company. Those added to my annual vacation of thirty-five days, I spent in learning how to train. In that entire period, I didn’t take a single day’s vacation. All my money was spent on books or travel cost by the cheapest means, to attend training courses. The question of comfort in travel, proper food, decent hotels and so on, didn’t even arise. All that I cared about was learning, using whatever resources I had. To give you an idea of what that was, my salary in that period went from Rs. 850 – 1100 by increments to a final princely sum of Rs. 5000 per month at the end of ten years of service. This was my investment in myself. No return to show for it and no certainty that there would ever be a return.

During this period, in 1985, I got married. My wife was (and is) my greatest support. What my obsession with learning meant for her was that whereas all her friends in the tea gardens had TVs and VCRs in their homes, we didn’t. Not that we had anything against movies. We had no spare cash. Every year, she would head home to her parents, and I would be off to this or that training class. Every year for ten years. In 1984, my dear friend Pratik Roy suggested that I should get an MBA. He told me, ‘Do an MBA and do it from IIMA (Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad) because it is not so much what you will learn but the name on your CV will open doors.’ I agreed. But there were two problems to overcome. The regular MBA program (PGP) was a full-time, two-year course, which I simply couldn’t afford to attend, because living for two years without a job was out of the question. So, I looked for something that would give me the same in a shorter time. IIMA fortunately had another course called the MEP which was an Executive MBA, designed for business owners and management executives with at least five-years’ experience. It was a very high-pressure course, seven-days-a-week, no holidays, in which they covered the entire two-year syllabus of the regular MBA. It was taught by the same professors, used the same case studies, but had insane hours. The only thing it didn’t have was the project which was substituted by the work-experience requirement.

Professors Labdhi Bhandari taught us Marketing; Pulin Garg and Indira Pareek, OB; Viswanathan Raghunathan, Finance; Bala (Balasubramaniam), Business Strategy. And others, equally good; each of them a privilege to study under. We had the best and their teaching, lives on in our minds and work.

The MEP is perhaps one of the best courses of its type because it gives you everything that an MBA gives you in a much shorter time. The high-pressure environment meant that only those who were serious stuck with it which was also for the good. It is very exhilarating to study with other obsessive-compulsives. We would study sixteen to eighteen hours a day, every day. We would drink tea and eat Maggi noodles from a street vendor at the gate of the Institute. He ran an all-night operation as he had a dedicated clientele in us. That high-octane tea kept us awake and we argued cases, analyzed our assessments and shot each other’s arguments to pieces; all adding to our learning. We would have surprise tests in class and the dreaded CPs (Class Presentations) where our group would make a presentation on the case that the whole class was studying which the rest of the class took great pleasure in taking apart. If you came out alive after a CP, believe me, it means you had something worthwhile to show. Living to see the light of day after all those brainy types had had a go at you, left you feeling really elated. Didn’t happen often but it did sometimes.

My second problem was money. The course cost Rs. 30,000. My salary was Rs. 850 per month. My savings were zero. I was going to get married and had saved up a little bit for that – I paid for my own marriage – so couldn’t spend it on anything else. I was in a fix. But as the saying is, ‘Where there is a will etc….’ I applied to my company for a loan to attend this course. I told them that I would be better qualified to serve them after the course and that I hoped that they would support my effort to educate myself. Apparently, they were partially convinced, so they replied to say that they would loan me half the amount, and that I would have to sign a bond to work for the company for three years after returning from the course. Also, that they would deduct my annual vacation of thirty-five days from the duration of my absence and treat the rest of it as leave without pay. So, in effect, that was added to my cost and I was still 50% short for the fees. To raise that I sold my car. I had a Hindustan Ambassador (Indianized Morris Oxford), the workhorse of India and one of two cars on Indian roads at the time, the other one being Premier Padmini (Indianized Fiat). That was a big blow because I had no idea when I would be able to afford another car. But the fee was paid, and I was accepted for the course. The course started in April 1985, but I had another matter to settle before that; my marriage. I was the Site Manager for Mayura Factory construction in the Anamallais. Mayura was to be the largest tea factory in South India and it was almost complete.

I took one week off and went to Hyderabad, got married on March 21st and returned on the sixth day with my wife, Samina. All that is another story but the long and short of it, relevant to this story is that the IIMA – Executive MBA (MEP) began in April. That was perhaps one of the toughest decisions my wife and I ever took. To separate so soon after our marriage. But we did it. Her parents were in the UK at the time, so she went off there. And I went to Ahmedabad for the course. What that meant was that even though we got one week off in the middle of the program, I would still not be able to meet my newly wedded wife, because she was in the UK. That was a strange week indeed. Everyone else left for their break. I had nowhere to go, or rather, no desire to go anywhere. So, I stayed on at the IIMA all through the week, alone. The point of all this is to show that if you want something badly enough then you need to take tough decisions. In my case, I lost pay, took a loan, sold my car, left my wife soon after we got married, all to get the Executive MBA which I considered very important. My wife supported me in this and took everything in her stride, including living a very frugal life for over a decade. After the course, we got back to Anamallais and I worked not for three years but until 1993. Eventually in 1993, I decided that I needed to take the final test of the pudding; starting up my own company.

Life in IIMA

I have talked about three things: Focus + Investment + Consistency. I did all of them. But there is a final one: Risk. Without taking risk, you can never know if what you did would really work. Risk, to a startup is like the first solo flight to a new pilot. That is when all his training shows up. There is no shortcut to this. Risk must be taken and so I started Yawar Baig & Associates in Bangalore in 1994. That sounds simpler than it was. It was simple enough to start a proprietorship company. The trick was to get business. My problem was that all my experience was as a hands-on operations man in manufacturing and large-scale agriculture and I was attempting to enter the domain of leadership training. I had no contacts in ‘Learning & Development’ or in ‘Human Resource Management’. And most of all, I had no track record of training. But I had a lot of energy and I wasn’t going to let what I didn’t have, prevent me from doing what I had set my heart on i.e. become a globally recognized leadership trainer. I hit the road. I made a list of all the MNCs (multinational companies) in Bangalore and started calling their heads. I would call the CEO or the Head of HR. I discovered that calling the CEO was a better deal than the HR Head. An operations man (there were no women CEOs at that time in Bangalore) was more likely to understand me than an HR person. Also, CEOs make decisions and don’t need to ask anyone else before deciding. There was a risk involved in that if the CEO said, ‘No’, then there was nobody else to go to. But then I reckoned that was better than going from one person to another until you got to a CEO who may still say, ‘No.’ The key was to get him to say, ‘Yes’, and not ‘No’.

I prepared my pitch, rehearsed it a million times and called. This was the Australian head of the IT operation for ANZ bank. I got his direct number from another friend who worked in that company along with the warning that he had a very short fuse. I called and he answered immediately and that’s when I discovered that there was a hole in my research; I had never heard an Australian accent before. This was 1994. I had no PC. There was no Google Search for Australian accents. In fact, there was no Google and wouldn’t be for another four years. I didn’t know any Australians and by the time I guessed what he was saying, he almost hung up. Mercifully, he said, ‘Hello! Are you there?’ I said, ‘Yes Sir. I am.’ And then I launched into my pitch (little did I know that later, I would be teaching people how to do ‘Elevator Speeches’) and asked him for an appointment. He said, ‘Will five minutes do?’ I replied, ‘Yes Sir. Thank you. See you tomorrow.’ Later I wondered if he was trying to insult me or challenge me or what the meaning of, ‘Will five minutes do?’ was. I went the next day, suit and tie, well in advance of the time. He greeted me and we started talking. He wanted training for his entry level engineers on human skills to lead IT Project Teams. After my pitch which took exactly four minutes, I said to him, ‘Thank you for your time Sir. I am finished.’ He said, ‘Na! Let’s talk about what I want you to do.’ That meeting went on for forty-five minutes

He said to me, ‘I want you to work with another consultant who is working with us’, and called in Julius Aib, who was to become one of my dearest friends and Aikido Sensei. Julius would teach the Project Management side of the course on “Project Manager Workbench” (PMW) and I would teach the human skills to lead teams. I designed a course called, ‘Critical Human Skills for Project Leadership’ and Julius and I taught it in that company for three years. Regular work is a lifeline for a startup consulting firm and that is how I got it. This course became very popular and I taught it in GE, IBM, Motorola, Wartsila (in Saudi Arabia), Andersen Corporation in the US and in many other firms.

The second meeting which stands out was with a French IT firm which had an Indian American CEO. A friend of mine got me a meeting with him. He was looking for a specific solution; and that was, how to get his direct reports to speak up in his meetings. He said to me, ‘They always agree with me. They never disagree. Then they don’t do what they agreed to do. That freaks me out.’ I realized what the issue was. He was an Indian by descent, but he was American through and through. He was born and raised in the US and had never worked in India. Now he was heading an Indian team and for his bad luck, he looked Indian. I say bad luck because if he had been white, they would have treated him differently and made allowances for his foreignness. But because he looked Indian, they treated him as an Indian, including speaking to each other in their local languages, none of which he understood. Clearly all this was hassling him and telling on the productivity of his team and on everyone’s happiness. He asked me if I had a solution.

‘Yes, I do, but I want to observe one of your meetings first before I tell you what I would like to do to solve your problem.’ He agreed. The meeting was an eyeopener and confirmed my diagnosis of what was happening. It went like this:

They were discussing an issue related to finance. The CEO described the issue (strong American accent) and then asked for the opinions of his team. They were all Vice Presidents of different functions. The first to speak was the VP Finance. As soon as he made his point, the CEO, slapped his hand on the table and said, ‘That’s a fantastic idea. Anyone else?’ There was dead silence. Nobody spoke a word. Deadpan expressions on the face, avoiding any direct eye contact with the CEO. He asked for other ideas a couple of times more; his face started to get red and he looked like he would rise like a ballistic missile and disappear through the ceiling. I decided to intervene and said, ‘Why don’t we take a break and have some coffee?’ Everyone started breathing again and stood up. The CEO realized that this was a deliberate tactic on my part and cooperated and said, ‘That is a good idea. Let’s take a break.’ As we left the room, I took him aside into an empty office. As soon as the door shut, he burst out, ‘See what I told you? This is what they do all the time. They clam up. Nobody gives any ideas. And these are all VPs and supposed to be bright people.’

I said to him, ‘Did you realize what happened there? What you did?’

He looked injured and angry, ‘What did I do? I only appreciated the man. What’s wrong with that? In America they would have come up with a hundred ideas after that affirmation.’

‘You are right, but this is not America and they are not American. This is India and in our culture the cost of ‘failure’ is very high. Nobody wants to be wrong. And definitely not in public. When you slapped your hand on the table and said, ‘Fantastic idea’, that set the standard. ‘Fantastic’ in our culture is the ultimate. It is not a simple word as in the American culture. In India, fantastic means, FANTASTIC. And when you say that with a slap of your palm on the table, it is sealed. You are in effect saying to them, ‘Here is the best possible idea that there can be. I challenge you to come up with a better one.’ Nobody then wants to take the risk to say something only to possibly have it discarded. Losing face is a very big thing in our culture.’

He listened in silence. Then he asked me, ‘What do you want to do about this?’

‘I will design a workshop on cross-cultural communication, and we will do it as an offsite for two days for your team.’

‘What will it cost?’

‘5000 per day plus my costs.’

‘How do I know it will work?’

‘You don’t. So, let me suggest a deal. How about you pay me only if it works. But if it works, then not only will you pay me, but I want you to call your friends and tell them about it and ask them to give me appointments to meet them.’

He looked at me with a quizzical look in his eye and said, ‘I like your spirit. It’s a deal.’

As they say, the rest is history. He was true to his word. Not only did he pay me, but he called other CEOs and I got appointments with almost every CEO there was. After all I had one of their own rooting for me.

You can read all this and more in my book, ‘An Entrepreneur’s Diary’.

Excitement is danger that anticipates a happy ending. That is the joy of risk taking, without which there can be no success.

Focus + Investment + Consistency and Risk (FIKR)….that is the bottom line. To continue to do that, not once, not twice, but all your life. That is what entrepreneurship is all about.

The meaning of ‘Covenant’

The meaning of ‘Covenant’

In the plantation world we had two cadres of staff: Covenanted and Non-covenanted. Covenanted Staff started at Assistant Manager (or Assistant Superintendent) and Non-covenanted staff ended at that level. There were very few exceptions to this ‘rule’. This system was an outcome of the fact that the British planters who ‘opened’ the plantations and for almost a century later, were all army-men, almost to the last one. They implemented the Army/Military system of Officer Staff and NCOs in the plantations also. The ‘glass ceiling’ was made of toughened, almost armored glass and was very rarely penetrated and never broken. Interestingly the same system exists in India, in the Army and Police (IPS Direct Recruits) to this day.

The pecking order of the servants in the bungalow was that the butler was on the top, followed by the Chokra (a Hindustani word with a derogatory tone which literally means ‘urchin’). This worthy was the assistant of the butler who did all the cleaning, scrubbing, and polishing work in the bungalow. Then there was the gardener who did all the work outside. If you had a cow, there was the cow-keeper. There was the dhobi (washer man) who washed and ironed your clothes. All these for you as the Assistant Manager in South Indian gardens. I am informed that Managers in Assam and Bengal had more servants and bigger bungalows.

When you got promoted and went to the Big Bungalow, you got an additional servant inside the bungalow and a driver for your car. The pecking order remained the same. The pecking order was very strictly followed. Almost always the only person you spoke to or who spoke to you was the butler. He was the one who handled the money. You would give it to him, to give to the others or to the provision merchant from whom food for the bungalow was bought on credit. Credit played a major role in life as most assistants had no money. Many who liked high living had club bar bills that took up most of their salaries and so they lived on credit. This was obviously an evil because apart from the obvious reasons, many butlers set up their own kickback systems as a result. It was a given that you would pay more for provisions than other people but that was the burden of being the Chinna Dorai (Small Boss).  

One cardinal fact of plantation life always took its toll – nothing in planting life was private. If you took a bribe, its exact amount, who gave it, and for what, was the subject of much conversation in the bazaar. If you refused to be corrupt and lived a life of honesty, that also became common knowledge. The result was that the actual love and respect that you received from the workers and staff was directly proportional to the kind of life you lived. And in the end, it affected your own success, the loyalty that people showed you, and the peace of mind you lived with. People spoke with great respect about managers who were incorruptible and with disgust and disdain about managers who were corrupt. And in a place where you were the subject of most conversation, public opinion made a very big difference to your success as a Manager.

Most people understood the responsibility and meaning of being ‘Covenanted Staff’ and that it was precisely the superior moral position that gave them the ‘command authority’ that neither any special educational qualifications nor social order bestowed on them. They understood the importance of these unwritten rules and respected them. But there were others who abused this position much to everyone’s disgust. They didn’t realize until too late that the resultant loss of respect was the most expensive loss they would ever suffer and something that was never redeemable. In my decade in planting, I had the opportunity to see both kinds. People for whom I developed the highest respect and those for whom pity, and contempt were the only emotions possible.

Traditionally, like in the army, there has always been a social distance between the Managers and other staff. There is social interaction, but in a very formalized and rule bound way. Most of it is restricted to ceremonial occasions around festivals. The Manager was the ‘Headman’ of the estate and was expected to be completely secular to the extent that he was supposed to preside at all festivals irrespective of his or the celebrator’s religion. We had Hindu and Christian Managers presiding at Eid celebrations and Muslim Managers flagging off the cart bearing the deity at temple festivals. I flagged off such carts on many occasions, then stayed for a cup of tea and left, so that the workers could carry on their celebrations unhindered by my presence. When to arrive and when to leave are very important things to know.

This tradition came out of the history of plantation labor almost all of whom were Dalit and in their own homelands, were not allowed into temples as they were considered ‘untouchable.’ But in the plantations, thanks to the fact that they were all displaced and almost all from the same caste, they created their own religious customs. So many temples in the plantation districts have Dalit priests, an anomaly in itself. Later, some Brahmin priests who were perhaps short of money in their hometowns started to come and preside at the temple, but the shots were called by the Dalits who built the temple and paid their salary. So, Dalits could not be prevented from entering the temple and were treated respectfully by the priest. That is why the religion of the Manager didn’t matter; by definition, a Christian or a Muslim were untouchable in the Hindu caste system anyway. But in a world comprised of untouchables, everyone was touchable.

The Managers were initially all British, Christian, and white and lived by their own traditions which were more British Military than Christian. Many of them were only nominally practicing Christians for whom the daily pilgrimage to the local Planter’s Club bar was more sacrosanct than weekly attendance at the Church. Over the years, more out of necessity than ‘equal opportunity,’ the British planters started recruiting Indians to the ‘Covenanted Staff’ cadre because British youngsters were not willing to go out to India. These people came from upper class families, sometimes local nobility (which is how we had a number of Hyderabadis from the noble families of erstwhile Hyderabad State). The key, non-negotiable requirement was social acceptability. The logic was that everything else could be taught. But Covenanted Staff needed to be people who held themselves apart and considered it necessary to behave by a higher moral code. To give this a positive spin, it was probably not racism alone but the need for the Officer Cadre to have the moral authority to command.  

These people and their families automatically got membership in the Planter’s Club and were strictly supposed to follow tradition. Almost everyone did to the extent that many even spoke their own languages with a British accent. I used to have a very hard time trying to keep a straight face when I heard emanating from a black Tamilian face the words, “Angamootoo yenge da irkain??” in a very British accent. Those of my readers who know Tamil can probably imagine how funny this would sound. There is a very funny story about one of these black-outside-white-inside managers driving to visit another manager friend in an estate where he was not familiar with the roads. He stops his car and calls out to a worker who was walking down the road, “Dey, payyan inge wa da. Inda wali yenge pohudoo?” The man, obviously irritated replied, “Dorai inda wali nayra Englandu ku pohudoo” (Sir this road goes straight to England). Once again those who know Tamil will see how highly disrespectful this entire conversation is towards the worker. There is nothing more pathetic than someone who disrespects his own people and imagines himself to be superior and different because of his pretensions.

I remember with amusement my first job interview in 1978 with the Kannan Devan Tea Company (now Tata Tea) in Munnar, Kerala. I was asked to report one day prior to the date of the interview. An old friend, my senior in school (Hyderabad Public School, Class of 1972, when Satya Nadela was 3 years old) Shahzad Abbas, who was an Assistant Manager and knew the ropes, told me that this was to see if the candidates would fit the social scene. I was to wear a tie and lounge suit, he said. We would start in the Men’s Bar and after the drinks were over, we would be asked into the dining room to have dinner which we would have all together. While we did this, different people would come and talk to us. And all this would be observed and would count in our favor or against us in the interview the next day.

Sure enough, that evening we were asked to present ourselves at the High Range Club, sharp at 7.00 pm. About twelve of us in various styles of suits and ties found ourselves in the Men’s Bar (women not allowed). We were asked what we drank. When it came to my turn, I said that I would like to have a soft drink. People looked at me with various expressions; the barman with pity, fellow contestants with derisive smiles, and other inhabitants of the bar with a variety of expressions related to whether they thought I was a poor fool, uncultured, or just plainly idiotic. To put the record straight, someone in the meanwhile gave me a fresh lime soda.

As I sat there (I was all of twenty-two years old) wondering about the job that I had applied for and what drinking alcohol had to do with it, I heard a loud, “Hello there!” I looked up to see a florid red face in a body without a neck and a large smile looking at me. “So, you don’t drink, eh?” he asked. Seeing that I was drinking a fresh lime soda (what else can you do with an FLS?) and that he could see what I was doing, I decided to keep silent and simply smiled and nodded. Smiling and nodding is an excellent strategy to allow people to interpret whatever they want.

“Tell me something young fellow,” he said, “Do you play cricket?”

I said that I did, but others who played with me wished that I didn’t.

Then he asked me, “Are you a Mason?” At that time, not being aware of the Free Masons Society I thought he wanted to know if I could build walls. “No, I’m not,” I said.

He looked me up and down with a sad expression on his face and said, “You don’t drink, you don’t play cricket, and you are not a Mason. Boy! You don’t have a chance.” Then looking at my face once again, he said, “Anyway, don’t worry, I am not on the recruitment panel.”

As it turned out, that did not make any difference to the outcome since those who were on the panel had the same views. I was asked a lot of questions about everything other than planting tea and given the ‘kiss of death’ – “Thank you very much, we will get back to you.” In plain English this means, “We are very glad that we are seeing the back of you.”

Thinking back over this incident, what is clear to me is the principle behind this method. In a place with a limited population (you did not count the estate staff and God Forbid, the workers as people) that you could socialize with, it was essential that you hired people who were socially acceptable. So social values that matched those of the locals had overwhelming importance. The skills of tea plantation management were all trainable. On the other hand, eating at table using the right fork for the right meat, drinking yet not getting drunk, making conversation that was inane yet interesting, dancing decorously with the manager’s wife and so on were all skills that were either thought to be not trainable or too much trouble. So British managers (including their acolytes, the Brown Sahibs) hired young people from backgrounds that were socially acceptable to them and then trained them for job related skills, on the job. I obviously didn’t match and so was rejected.

The Sahib’s prediction was right, even though he was not on the panel.

I was determined to join planting and had applied also to the other big company in South India, Harrisons & Crossfield (later Harrisons Malayalam and then Malayalam Plantations). A few days after I returned home to Hyderabad, I got an interview call from Harrisons. The letter read, ‘You are invited to attend an interview at The Westend Hotel in Bangalore. You will be paid second class train fare and Rs. 50 out of pocket expenses. It was clear that Harrisons didn’t want their assistants to put on weight. I was delighted to get the letter. The problem was that I had never been to Bangalore and didn’t know the first thing about the place. So, I booked myself on Indian Airlines (no other domestic airlines then) and booked myself into The Westend Hotel, the only place in Bangalore that I even knew the name of. I arrived in Bangalore the evening before the interview. The hotel picked me up from the airport and the next morning, I presented myself for the interview. The Westend was a Spencer’s hotel at that time, if I recall correctly and Taj had not taken it over. It was and is still one of my favorite hotels for the magnificent old trees in its grounds, it lovely old rooms (don’t like the new ones) and its excellent service. I stayed there many times since then, but 1978 was the first time I stayed at the Westend Hotel in Bangalore.

The interview was in the suite of the Visiting Agent of Harrisons, Mr. Mccririck (I learnt his name only later), one of the many Scotsmen who were in tea. Wonderful people who left behind great memories of hard work, hilarious eccentricity and great friendships. I waited my turn in the lounge. Precisely on the dot a tall white man in a suit walked in with his hand extended, saying, “Good morning Mr. Baig. How are you? Please come.” We went inside his suite into the internal lounge where he invited me to take a chair facing the window which put me with the light in my eyes while he was in the shade.

“So, how was your journey Mr. Baig?”

“Very comfortable, Sir.”

“How long does it take to get from Hyderabad to Bangalore?”

‘One-hour Sir.”

His eyebrows shot up. “How did you come?”

“I flew, Sir.” Technically that was not true because I only sat while the pilot flew the plane, but there I was.

“Hmm! Where are you staying in Bangalore?”

“Here Sir.”

I think he heard a question in my tone and not a statement, so he said, a bit testily, “Of course, in Bangalore, where are you staying?”

“That is what I mean Sir. I am staying here, in this hotel.”

“Are you staying here at the Westend?” Now the eyebrows pretended to be the hairline. “You read the interview letter, didn’t you?”

“Yes Sir, I did. I am staying here. But I am not asking you to pay for it, Sir.” I thought that I had committed suicide and that the interview was over.

Mr. Mccririck asked me a couple of other questions, which looked to me to be more time fillers than anything else. I steeled myself for another kiss of death but then he said, “Well Mr. Baig, I am happy to have met you. You will get a letter informing you about the estate you need to go to for the extended interview. And please give us the bills for your travel and hotel. We will be happy to reimburse you these expenses. Thank you for coming.”

I was selected and posted to Ambanad Estate, under Mr. Ansari, who had a fearsome reputation for being a very hard taskmaster. However, before I could join, I had an offer to go to Guyana and leapt at the opportunity to go abroad. I spent five years there and returned to India, to join tea in the Anamallais in CWS (India) Limited, under a harder taskmaster, Mr. K. Ahmedullah. The best thing in life is to start your career under a hard taskmaster. For me, I had already been working for several years, but in planting, which was my first love, as evidenced by my persistence in trying to become a planter, I started under Mr. AVG Menon as my Manager and Mr. K. Ahmedullah as the General Manager, Plantations. Anyone can teach you what to do. But hard taskmasters teach you standards. That is the biggest favor that anyone can do for you. That is what I owe to AVG and Ahmed. Both were the kindest of people off the job, but on the job, it was a different matter. If you did well, not only did they appreciate it, but they made sure that your work was highlighted as yours and they didn’t take credit for it. But if you were careless, or brainless, then you were in for a chewing. Mind you, if you made a well-intentioned mistake in trying to achieve something new or introduce an innovation, your ‘mistake’ was praised. But if the mistake was because you had not applied your mind, were just being plain lazy or stupid, then you learned about that pretty graphically.

Planting was more about life than about tea. I had many teachers, all of whom I honor in my memory. Mr. AVG Menon, Mr. K. Ahmedullah, Mr. N. K. Rawlley, Mr. Saleem Sharif, taught me Estate Management. Mr. O. T. Varughese, Mr. Poovaiah, Mr. K. V. Choodamani, taught me about field operations. Mr. Madhavan and Mr. Hamza taught me Orthodox manufacture. Mr. T. V. Varughese (ex-GM, Tata Tea), taught me CTC manufacture. And all of them taught me about life, culture, decision making, conflict resolution, standing up for yourself and those under you, and more than anything else, taking pride in your work. AVG, Mr. Ahmedullah and Mr. Rawlley would take the Assistant with them when they visited the estate or division. Mr. Ahmedullah and Mr. Rawlley both had a very disconcerting habit of turning up at the crack of dawn, when I would still be in my muster. One of our Field Watchers would come racing, out of breath, gasping, “Company Dorai wandirkiraar.” (General Manager has come).

“Yengay irkiraar?” (Where is he?) I would ask, with visions of Mr. Ahmedullah walking into the Muster behind the man.

“Padanetta numberil boundary ley irukkiraar.” (He is on the boundary of Field No. 18). Grab your hat, leap on the bike and race down the rough, narrow field roads to the boundary where your fate awaits you.

“Good morning Sir.”

“Good morning. When was this field last plucked? How is your manuring going?” If these were the kind of questions, you could start breathing.

Otherwise it could be, “All these blue flowers look lovely on the tea.” Then you knew that your end was near. The blue flowers were the flowers of Morning Glory (Ipomoea), a beautiful garden creeper for everyone in the world and a noxious weed for tea planters. If allowed to grow it would cover the tea and result in serious drop in crop. The reason Mr. Ahmedullah and his generation started inspection from the boundaries was because those were usually the most neglected parts of the estate. In planting there is an old saying, which says it all. “The dust from the Manager’s boots is the best manure for the tea bush.” Estate management is not rocket science. It is a lot of walking and climbing hills. You need to love doing it or you won’t, and it will show. The field boundary in South India, meant either the bottom of the slope ending in a swamp or the top of the hill, sometimes 2-3000 feet above ending in the forest. Not the most inviting places for most managers and assistants, except wildlife crazy cracks like me. The reward was some of the most magnificent views that you can ever hope to see. That is why in planting they looked for temperament and extracurricular interests so rigorously.

Parambikulam Dam, backwaters, seen from Murugalli Estate, Anamallais

I loved and love trekking up and down slopes. I would go down almost daily as I normally didn’t take my bike to the Muster. I would start off earlier than anyone and walk down to the bottom of the slope from my bungalow. In the swamp, I would be greeted by a pair of Barking Deer that lived in that patch of tea. Then I would walk along the bottom of the tea, cross the swamp, noting where Wild Boar had been digging for wild yams, up the other side and walk along the road, leading past the coffee area of Lower Sheikalmudi Estate. That was where many a day, I would see the last of the bison herd (Indian Gaur) or Sambar, before they went off into the forest for the day. Once in a while I would hear elephants as they moved through the coffee area on the way to Candura where they rested in the thick forest between the two parts of the estate. Then I would walk up that road to UD Muster by the time the workers started to gather. Of course, my progress would be monitored by the workers and their families who could see from their ‘lines’ (housing) any movement on the roads. Nothing is hidden in the hills. I could imagine the grapevine, “Dorai warraar.” All good for the tea, for discipline and to gain respect. All lessons learnt from my wonderful teachers, who practiced the same things.

Tea planting was a way of life. It was not a job. You loved it and thrived. Or you didn’t and left. I loved every moment of it and still do. You can’t be a good planter if planting is merely a job for you. Planting is a lifestyle, which even to this day, I will be very happy to return to, if someone is ready to give me a job, mentoring youngsters who join planting. For me, just to live in the Anamallais is a privilege. Any takers?

For more please read my book, ‘It’s my Life’, available on Amazon worldwide.

Lessons from the rain forest

Lessons from the rain forest

 Guyana was also a place of learning. I was alone. I had a lot of time. I loved reading. I was used to being alone and to reflecting and liked writing down my thoughts. All excellent ways to conceptualize life experience.

I love the bush and I loved hunting. So every alternate weekend Peter Ramsingh and I would go on a long drive into the bush to hunt what we could. Most of this was for the table because in the Kwakwani of those days, if you wanted variety on your table you had to find it yourself. And it was not in the Commissary that you would find it either. Mostly, we hunted the Canje Pheasant found all along the Berbice and its tributary, the Canje Creek. Another common game bird was the Powis (Curassow). It was as big as a turkey and good eating. We would also on occasion get an Agouti (Brazilian Agouti or Red, Orange or Golden Rumped Agouti) or two. And when we were very lucky, a small Savannah deer. Bush pig, the Collared Peccary (called Javelina) was also good game and though we both did not eat it, we had many friends who welcomed our hunts because we were the only people who would shoot a pig and then give it away.

Peter inherited my yellow Land Rover when the sawmill started and I got a small Toyota pickup. Peter and I would take turns driving the Land Rover over the bush trails. It contained in the back, everything that we needed for our camping and in case of an emergency. A chainsaw, thick rope, hammocks, spare petrol, an axe, a spade, the ever present cutlasses and various odds and ends. We would put in a cooler filled with drinks and some pre-cooked bananas or cassava and off we would go. What would have been ideal was a cell phone or radio but the first hadn’t been invented and the second we didn’t have. So we relied on ourselves. What we shot, we would cook in the bush and eat. What we saved, we would bring home. Sometimes in the bush we would come across a deep stream and would have to build a bridge to get across. Sometimes we would get stuck in the sandy soil and would have to tie the rope to a tree nearby and use the winch on the Land Rover to haul it out. In the evening we would find a camping place, tie the hammocks to ever present trees, all conveniently located so that we could tie our hammocks of course. Then we would light a fire and put on the tea pot. Once we had a nice cup of tea, we would put on the cooking pot. Peter, meanwhile, would have cleaned the game of the day. We would get water from the stream nearby, water that was coffee colored but perfectly clean and tasteless. The bush meat would go into the pot with salt and chillies, some onions, and as it cooked we would sit and talk about life.

The big topic of conversation at the time was the posturing of Venezuela, which bordered Guyana and had a border dispute. There was some chance that this would escalate to a military conflict. The Guyana Army was not in a position to face the much bigger and powerful Venezuelan army, but nobody would admit that. There was some discussion about whether Guyana would introduce conscription, so Peter was concerned if he would be called to join the Army. I was a foreigner and so was in no such ‘danger.’ To speak the truth though, I would have welcomed the adventure. However, as it turned out, South Americans are far wiser than their northern cousins and the matter was resolved peacefully.

Another topic was the government of President Burnham. This was a dangerous topic to talk about in a dictatorship where even your thoughts would be monitored if they could be, all in the name of freedom and democracy of course. But we were far away in the bush and Peter was in the company of a trusted friend. I was therefore the confidant of many ordinary people who wanted to vent their frustration with the way the country was being misgoverned. It was amazing to see how a country so rich in natural resources, so fertile, and with such wonderful people could be run into the ground so rapidly.

The bush in South America is different from its counterpart in India or Africa because of the absence of major predators. The only big ones are the Jaguar and the Anaconda, but neither will actually attack a person except in special circumstances. So it is possible to actually sleep very peacefully as long as you are not on the ground.

An hour or so later, once the food was ready, we would take the pot off the fire, pull out the bread that we had brought, and have our dinner. Then after some more discussion of world affairs, we would climb into our hammocks and drift off into peaceful sleep looking at the stars—possible only because we were at the river bank where the canopy did not obstruct the view. Those days seem like a dream today. Almost as if they never happened. And Guyana is so far away from where I am today that it seems as if I will never see my friends again. Be that as it may, the memories are alive in my heart and on these pages; they will live on in the minds of those who read this. We live in the memories that we give others. So it is important to be conscious of the memories we leave behind. This doesn’t mean that we live a life for others. But it does mean that we remember one cardinal fact, ‘Everything we choose to do or choose not to do, reflects brand value and character and is the stuff of memories.’

Remember when you read these pages that if I have written about a stream, it is there and the water is good to drink. These are stories of real life, real people, their hopes and loves and fears. And they will live on until they are remembered.

River Berbice, Guyana, 1980

Peter got another friend Leon Molenuex to build a flat bottomed boat for me. It was 18 feet in length with a flat bottom, low sides and a blunt prow. Its back was flat to fix an outboard motor. It had oar locks and two oars. And it had an ice box in the middle with bench seats, a plank each on either side of the ice box, forward and rear. Peter and I, and sometimes Leon would also come along, would load up the boat every Friday afternoon that we could get away and go up the Berbice River. What did we take with us? Hammocks, cutlasses, one single barreled 16 bore shotgun each. Rope, fishing line, hooks and a fishing net. Some rice, cassava, bananas and salt and pepper. And most importantly some chicken guts in a plastic bag. The last being what we called our ‘emergency ration’. Not that we ate them, but if we caught nothing then if you baited a hook with raw chicken guts and trawled them behind your boat you were sure to get some Piranha. Good eating.

It was a matter of honor for us that we would only eat what we could hunt or catch. Since neither Peter nor I ate pork, it took one of the most common items off our menu – Collared Peccary (Bush Pig) that we would be sure to see. But we never returned hungry. We would trawl as we moved along and usually caught some Lukanani (Peacock cichlid, Cichla ocellaris) or Grey Snapper (Acoupa weakfish, Cynoscion acoupa), two of the delicacies of the Amazonian River system and would roast them for dinner. If we were fortunate then either Peter or I would also be able to bag one of the several species of Curassows that lived in those forests. The most common were the Black Curassow (Crax alector) and the Crestless Curassow (Mitu tomentosum). Or even an Agouti (Cuniculus paca, Dasyprocta aguti) which is from the Paca family and a relative of the rabbit and Capybara but much smaller. Game was in such abundance that there was never a trip on which we had to go hungry but we would also bring back fish and game for Peter’s family and the families of other friends.

Almost every other Friday evening, we would start from Kwakwani going upriver, travelling until it got dark. Then we would find a sandy spot on the river bank and camp for the night. That sounds a bit chancy when you read it but we had our spots and knew them well so we just headed for the first one. A sandy bank was necessary because like all the rivers in this part of the world, the trees of the rain forest trailed their feet in the river all along its banks. That made landing very difficult and camping impossible. So you needed to look for a sandy bank. That happened at the bends in the river where the river deposited its sand and this collected over the years to make for some very attractive sandy crescents on which we camped.

Our routine was always the same. We would draw the boat up on the bank and I would collect wood for a fire. Peter and I would then sling up our hammocks from the trees that bordered the bank, first clearing the undergrowth around their trunks to ensure that we didn’t end up with unwanted sleeping partners. We would trawl as we travelled upriver and so we would have a couple of good size fish in our ice box. Once the fire was lit, Peter would put the kettle on and I would gut the fish and clean them. Then I would rub salt into the fish and prepare it for the bake. Taking two large yam leaves (or any other large leaf), I would wrap the fish securely in it and tie the whole bundle with a thread. Then I would dig in the river bank for clay and cover the fish warp with clay and make a ‘brick’ of clay – one for each fish. Once that was ready, I would remove the kettle from the fire, move the coals aside and dig in the sand and bury the clay bricks in the hot sand. I would then put the coals back on top and light the fire again. By the time our tea was ready so would the fish. We would then dig out the bricks and crack them open, remove the leaf covering and we had the most delicious baked fish you can imagine for dinner. There is nothing to beat fresh fish cooked with a little salt, in its own juices, with a bit of butter melted on top.

When dinner was done, we would climb into our hammocks and chat about whatever was at top of the mind until I would hear a snore in response to whatever I was saying. I would know then that Peter was off on his trip to dreamland. The rainforest is a safe place as long as you didn’t do anything stupid like sleeping on the riverbank. As long as you are off the ground nothing bothers you and I am living proof. There are many animals which are dangerous in these forests but none that will take a human being by choice. So as long as you stay out of their normal pathways you will be safe.

Lying in the hammock waiting for sleep to come, I would listen to the sounds of the forest and try to identify each one. The Amazonian rainforest is a rather silent place in the night, unlike Indian forests. The animals are less vocal and the forest itself muffles sound thanks to its density – you don’t hear much except insects. If you are near the river there are not many mosquitos but you do get vampire bats and so you need to cover up unless you wish to be bitten by one of them. That doesn’t turn you into a vampire or anything so romantic, but the wound can bleed for a long time as there is heparin in the bat’s saliva which prevents blood from clotting. In addition, I am sure vampire bites are not exactly what any doctor would order so it is better to stay off their menu.

Early next morning, we would start out at first light, or sometimes even a bit earlier, going over what looks like boiling hot water because of the ‘steam’ rising from it. That ‘steam’ is the mist that gets created when the warm water vapor laden air meets the cold river surface and gives the whole atmosphere an ethereal quality. Engine buzzing with Peter at the rudder, we would travel in companionable silence, eyes ever watchful for floating logs. These were the only real danger because if you hit one full tilt, it would take the bottom out of the boat. A fate not to be contemplated as the Berbice has Piranha, Cayman, and other interesting forms of life.

The Berbice is a wonderful river that changes its nature all along its course. Downriver from Kwakwani it is deep enough for large vessels to negotiate it. Bauxite ore from Kwakwani would be transported on barges pushed by a tug boat all the way to New Amsterdam on the coast to the smelter. These tugs would normally have a tow of four barges; each sixty feet in length which when fully loaded would sink to their gunnels with the weight. The tug boat captain’s job was a very complex one, negotiating bends in the river a hundred and fifty feet ahead through frequent blindingly heavy rain showers and through the night. Since tug boats and barges are about the clumsiest of watercraft and with the kind of weight the barges carried, this was no mean task. It was a tribute to the training and skills of tug boat captains that there had never been any instance of the barges heading out of the river, cross country across the rain forest.

Going upriver, however, the nature of the Berbice changes. It is no longer the deep river but spreads wide and shallow with frequent sandbars; so shallow in places that one could easily wade across. So much so that on occasion we would have to pull in the outboard motor and drag the boat over the sandbank. In this also there was a twist. In this river sand, there were two kinds of dangers. One that it could be quick sand with so much water under it that if you stepped into it, you could easily sink in over your head and die a horrible death. To guard against that we would get out of the boat only one at a time and hang onto the side of the boat until we were completely sure of our footing. Only then would be let go of the boat and then the other person would also get off and we would drag the boat over into water deep enough to float it.

The second danger was that of Stingrays. These are fresh water rays with a poisonous sting in the tail. Their favorite pastime is to lie buried and invisible in the sand of sandbars, just under the surface and wait for something to come within range and then they would sting by shooting a poisonous spike into it and then wait until it dies to eat it. Their normal prey is small fish but if you were to step on or close to one of them, then they would sting you out of fright. I am sure there are more painful things in life than a stingray sting—I just I don’t know what they are. And if you happen to be allergic to the poison then 50 kilometers up the Berbice River in the middle of the Amazonian rain forest is not where you want to discover this.

Even if you are not allergic, the sting means several days of fever, swollen lymph nodes, swollen foot and almost incapacitating pain. So what we would do is to put on our boots before we stepped into the water. Alternatively, you could use a stick and hold it ahead of you and push it in the sand ahead of you as you walk to ensure that you disturb the Stingray and drive it away before you get too close to it.

As we went upriver, we would sometimes pass single houses on stilts on the bank of the river with a little patch of garden at the back growing cassava, banana, and a couple of jackfruit trees. The house was one large room built on a high platform with a leaf or grass thatch. The walls were of woven mat with holes for windows. There would be a couple of dugout canoes tied to one of the poles with a rickety step going up to the platform. Children playing on the step or in the canoes would yell and scream at us with great excitement and delight. If we had time we would stop by and pass out some sweets or bananas that we would carry for such occasions. Otherwise we would wave to them and they would continue to wave and yell until we rounded the next bend of the river out of sight. I always wondered what would make a person go and live so far up the river in the middle of nowhere, alone without access to electricity, medical aid, and schooling for his children, and without any amenities. These Amerindians would hunt, gather honey and balata (wild rubber latex) and farm a little and would occasionally come to Kwakwani to buy a few things and sell their balata and honey and some wild meat. But they would not work at a regular job for love or money nor would they live closer to town. They preferred to live miles upriver and paddle their canoes several hours to get to Kwakwani and longer to return, paddling against the current on their way up.

It was a wonderful experience, buzzing along up the river hour after hour, listening to the sounds of the forest. Macaw pairs flying high over the canopy, talking to each other. Macaws believe that conversation makes for happy marriages and it seems to work for them as they pair for life and talk all the time. Toucans screaming whatever they scream about. The booming call of the Howler Monkey sentinel, answered by his counterpart in another part of the forest. The sudden crash in the undergrowth as you come around a bend and scare away something that was drinking at the edge of the bank. From the sound of the crashing you can guess whether it was a Collared Peccary or a Tapir. Deer and Agouti move very quietly and you wouldn’t even know that they had been there.

One weekend we decided to go as far as we could and eventually we must have gone more than a hundred kilometers when we came to place where the river widened into a huge pool. We entered the pool from the side that the river flowed out of. On the opposite side where the river flowed into was a series of rapids and short waterfalls. The sides of the pool were sandy and made excellent camping ground. We were delighted with the whole prospect. It was a very beautiful place indeed. Peter and I decided to camp for the night and pulled onto the sand and dragged the boat far up onto the sand. No telling if the river would rise in the night and float the boat away. That is not a prospect to be contemplated, being a hundred kilometers or more in the middle of nowhere without a boat. Trekking through rain forest is not an occupation to be thought of easily.

I got the fire going while Peter hung up our hammocks. Suddenly, I noticed on the far end of the pool near the rapids, a permanent structure on a concrete platform, a room roofed with corrugated iron sheets. It looked like a government structure and I wondered what it could be. Once we’d had our dinner and before it got dark we decided to go across and take a look at what it was. When we tied up to the little jetty there, an Indian Guyanese man came down to the water and greeted us. With him was an American who looked like some kind of technician by the way he was dressed, in overalls. We made our mutual introductions and it turned out that the structure was a weather monitoring station with some equipment from Motorola, which needed repair. The American engineer was from Motorola and had come to repair the equipment onsite. In the course of conversation, he asked me where I was from. I told him that I was from India.

He asked me, ‘Where from in India?’

I replied, ‘Hyderabad.’

He got very excited and told me, ‘I have been to Hyderabad. I have a friend there. His name is J. J. Singh and he works at the Administrative Staff College. Do you know him?’

I rolled my eyes and said, ‘Do I know him? Of course, I know him! But look at this, what is the probability that I would be in the middle of the Amazonian rain forest, hundred kilometers up the Berbice River, where I would meet an American who I had no idea would be there and we would have a mutual friend? If there was someone betting on this we would both be millionaires, man!!’ And we both had a great laugh. Whenever someone tells me, ‘It’s a small world’, I tell them, ‘Yes, but much smaller than you think.’ And I tell them this story. To date, nobody has told me a story more unlikely than this.

Life Lessons from Tea

I started working in India in the Anamallai Hills, part of the Western Ghats as they tapered down all the way into the tip of the subcontinent. Before that I had worked for five years in bauxite mining in Guyana, South America and lived on the bank of Rio Berbice, in the middle of the Amazonian rain forest. But that is another story.

The area that contained the tea plantations was part of the Indira Gandhi National Park. The park is home to an amazing variety of wildlife which thanks to the difficult terrain, plethora of leeches, and shortage of motorable roads is still safe from the depredations of ‘brave’ hunters buzzing around in their Jeeps and shooting animals blinded and frozen in their searchlight beams. In the Anamallais if you want to hunt (it is illegal to shoot anything in the National Park, but there are those who are not bothered about what is legal and what is not) you must be prepared to walk in the forest, up and down some very steep hills, be bitten by leeches and have a very good chance at becoming history at the feet of an elephant.

However, if you are not interested in hunting and killing animals, you have all the same pleasures and thrills with the animal healthy and alive at the end of it. I want to see and photograph animals, not kill them. I have hunted enough in my youth and lost interest in killing things as my connection with nature strengthened. I was looking for an opportunity to just spend time in the environment that I loved. My job as an Assistant Manager in Sheikalmudi Estate, my first posting with a princely salary of ₹850 per month, gave me all that I could have wished for.

Sheikalmudi borders the Parambikulam forest. This extends from the shore of the Parambikulam Reservoir (created by damming the Parambikulam River) up the steep mountainside all the way to the top. Sheikalmudi is the crown on that mountain’s head, manicured tea planted after cutting the rain forest, more than a century ago by British colonial planters. Where the tea ends, starts the rain forest of the Western Ghats. Anamallais is the second rainiest place on the planet. In the early part of the century it used to get more than three-hundred centimeters of rain annually and consequently it rained almost six months of the year. Even when I joined in 1983, we frequently saw spells of more than a week at a stretch, when it rained continuously day and night without any easing of the volume of water. I was horrified the first time I saw this. I was used to rain in Hyderabad, where we get about thirty centimeters annually. And to the rain in Guyana, where because of the Trade Winds which brought the rain, it rained on most days in the evenings for a little while and then cleared up.

Now here was rain and more rain and more rain. Yet in all this rain, we went to work at 6.00 am every morning. Heavy canvas raincoat, waterproof jungle hat, shorts, stockings and wellingtons. We rode our motorcycles down treacherous hill pathways, slippery in the rain and covered with fog as sometimes a cloud decided to rest on its journey across the sky. It was very cold because we were between 3500 to 4000 feet high and so in the first ten minutes, you lost all feeling in your legs, below your knees.

Walls of the bungalow would have mildew growing on them in damp patches. Small leaks would develop in the roof and their yield would be received in sundry pots and pans placed under them. This would create its own music. Little frogs would emerge from every crevice and would hop all around the house. In the night, they would find some resting place and add their voices to the night chorus of frogs and insects in the garden, that would rise and fall like an animal breathing. But sometimes the rain would be so heavy that all you could hear was the rain on the galvanized iron sheet roof. This sound would drown out every other sound. Within the first week of the beginning of the monsoon, all telephone lines would be down. Power supply would become extremely erratic. And more often than not, landslides would block roads. So being cut off from everyone for several days was a common phenomenon. When there came the occasional storm – every year we used to have at least two or three – all these problems would get magnified.

Candle light dinners with a roaring fire in the fireplace were the fringe benefit of this weather. That and in my case, a lot of chess by the fire. The year I got married, 1985, there was a storm in which twelve-hundred trees fell on my estate alone, taking down with them all power and telephone lines. There were two major landslides and we were cut off from the world for a total of fifteen days. It rained almost continuously for this period and my poor wife had a wet introduction to the new life ahead of her. But typical for us both, we enjoyed this time, playing chess by the fireside. She started by not knowing chess at all and I taught her the game. By the end of our enforced seclusion she was beating me. Now take it as her learning ability or the quality of my game, but being rained-in has its benefits.

I have always looked for challenges. Anything that comes easily does not excite me. My learning, that it is the extraordinary goal that inspires extraordinary effort is very personal to me. In the plantation industry I was constantly focused on setting new records. And over the years I was able to do this in all aspects of tea and rubber planting. I set the record in yield per hectare, in work tasks in various cultivation activities, and in the price of the manufactured product. I reclaimed swamp land and planted cardamom and set up bee hives and produced cardamom flavored honey. I reclaimed illegally cultivated land bordering our tea and planted tea in it adding over 50 hectares of land to the estate. I planted vanilla under rubber and successfully pollinated and harvested the vanilla bean; to my knowledge the first time this had been done in South India. When I say, ‘I’, I mean my team. I had one of the best in the world, each of them close friends who worked with me with total devotion and dedication and who I was very proud to call my own. I trained several of them, when they came to me as probationers and while not all were equally happy during the training, as I am a hard task master, every one of them was thankful for what they received and have remained lifelong friends.

1983-86 were boom years for tea in South India. Anything that was produced would sell. The biggest buyers were the Russians who bought on the rupee trade agreements between the governments of both countries. Anything that could be manufactured in South India was bought by the Russians. Sadly, quality went out the window. Some people, including myself, were able to see the writing on the wall and tried to get manufacturers to focus on quality and to get out of the commodity market and instead create brand. That, however, meant investing in brand building and hard work in maintaining quality standards. Since people were making money, nobody was interested in listening to anything that meant more work or investment. Eventually, the inevitable happened. Russia collapsed and so did their buying trend and it almost took the South Indian tea industry down with it. Some companies shut down. Others were more fortunate. But the whole industry faced some very hard times.

Interestingly, success seems to breed fear of failure. This is a paradox, since success should really build confidence. It does that too, but what seems to happen over the years is that we become progressively more afraid of losing what we have created and our ability to take risks decreases. This to me explains why entrepreneurs who have built large organizations are so afraid to allow others to take the same kind of risks that they took when they were alone and creating the company. Somehow, as they succeed, people who build organizations seem to forget the real lessons of their experience:

  • That it was speed of reaction and the ability to take risks that gave them the competitive advantage.
  • That it was the willingness to put themselves on the line, which built their credibility.
  • That it was staying in touch with customers that helped them anticipate trends.

This fear of taking risk seems to extend even more to their own children, a phenomenon that we see in many family owned companies where the old, often senile, patriarch rules supreme and holds the strings of power. That is also why such organizations finally break-up, usually with a lot of rancor, as the rebellion against authority comes to a head and the son has no alternative but to break away. This fear of failure has many respectable names: Consolidation of gains, Stability, Creating Permanence and so on.

What is forgotten is that life is about change and positive change is growth.  That growth is not looking inwards with a satisfied glow at what exists, but always to seek what might be. And that all growth is essentially characterized by a lack of stability, living with impermanence and spending what you have, to fuel what you aspire to create. This is forgotten, not by chance or accident. It is forgotten deliberately, albeit sometimes unconsciously. And it is done to deal with the fear of failure if one continues to take risk.

So, what is the alternative?                                          

In my view, the alternative is to practice change even when there is no need for it.

Some organizations create think-tanks whose job is to conceptualize hypothetical threat situations and suggest solutions. One can use this or any other method, but it is a very good idea to spend some time and energy in anticipating the future and preparing for it. I personally make it a point to do this kind of reflective observation every so often. The important thing is to make this an ongoing process, no matter how you do it. Anticipating change is the first step to creating game changers that will put you in the driving seat. That is the only guarantee of permanence in a world where permanence is against nature. Any other route in my view only guarantees stagnation of ideas, sanctification of monumental stupidity, and calcification of the mind.

The single biggest and most critical requirement of success in my view is the desire to be the best. No matter what you may do – if you want to succeed, you need to be passionate about what you do and want to be the best at it. This is something that I have been aware of in myself all my life. I always wanted to be the best at whatever I did. Read the most, get the best results at school, train my dog so that it would win in tracking and show championships, school my horse so that he would win in dressage competitions every time, climb the biggest mountain I could find, do what nobody had done before, go where nobody had gone before me. Always trying to excel in whatever I put my hand to. I never saw any thrill in simply doing more of the same. I always wanted to do something new. And that’s a very cool way to live.

It is not that I succeeded on every occasion. But I made a serious effort every time. And when I failed, I used the other technique that I had learnt early in life; to analyze failure, face the brutal reality, and acknowledge ownership. No justification of mistakes. No blaming others. Take the responsibility for my own actions. See what went wrong and why. See what I need to do to ensure that this particular mistake never happens again. The pin and hole principle in engineering; fool proofing the system so that it becomes impossible to make a mistake. Not leaving the issue to individual discretion but creating a system to ensure that the correct procedure is followed every time. These are two principles that I have always tried to follow in my life: try to be the best and own up to mistakes.

A third principle that I have always tried to follow is to actively seek feedback. And then to listen to it without defensiveness. No justification or argument with the person giving the feedback, always remembering that my intention is inside my heart. What we intended to convey is less important than what we did convey. What the other person sees is the action, not the intention. And if the action did not convey the intention, then the action failed and must change, because for us all, perception is reality.

Being passionate about what you do is absolutely essential for anyone who wants to be the best in their work. For me, this has never been a matter of choice but something that I have always held as inevitable. If I do something, then it must be the best that I can possibly do. Nothing less. I discovered that if I am in a profession or job where I can’t really find it in myself to be passionate about it, then I need to change the job. And I did. Happiness is not doing less. It is to do the most that we can do. To maximize contribution. And that can only come through loving what you do. I am deliberately using a term which is not often used in a work context, love. People who don’t love their work are stressed. People who love their work automatically get a sense of meaning from it and believe it is worthwhile. The more they do, the happier they are. They get stressed not with work, but with not having enough of it.

Just to close the point, a working person spends roughly thirty to thirty-five years doing what we call work. If we take a lifespan of seventy years and subtract the years spent in childhood and education, work life is almost seventy percent of a person’s lifespan. To spend this doing something that does not give fulfillment, satisfaction and a sense of achievement, but is something that is routine, boring and even unpleasant, is a very stupid way to live your life. Unfortunately, that is how many people do lead their lives. In dead end jobs with no value addition to themselves or to the organizations they work for. That is why work produces stress.

Berty Suares, my dearest friend

Life in the Anamallais passed like a dream. Berty Suares was the Assistant Manager on the neighboring estate, Malakiparai. And Sandy (Sundeep Singh) was on Uralikal. Both dear friends. They would come over to my place and we would spend Sunday picnicking on the bank of the Aliyar River where on a bend in the river that passed through our cardamom plantation, I had built a natural swimming pool. I deepened the stream bed and deposited the sand from there on the near bank, thereby creating a very neat ‘beach.’ Sitting on this beach under the deep shade of the trees after a swim in the pool was a heavenly experience. Add to it, eating cardamom flavored honey straight from the comb, taken from the many hives that I had set up in the cardamom fields for pollination. The flavor comes from the pollen of the flowers which the bees take to make the honey. Depending on where you set up your hives or where the bees go to find pollen, honey can have as many flavors as there are flowers.  While we lazed about at noon, our lunch would be brought down to us and we would all eat together. The joys of being a planter in the days when we had people who knew how to enjoy that life.

If you walked down the river for a couple of kilometers you would come to the Parambikulam Dam backwaters into which this river flowed. I had built another pool there at the bottom of a waterfall, thanks to a stream that flowed through Murugalli Estate. We used to keep a boat in the dam to go fishing on the lake. There was a thickly wooded island in the lake about half a kilometer from the shore on which one could go and spend the whole day, swimming and lazing in the shade; a very welcome occupation, free from all stress. The only sounds that you would hear would be the wailing call of the Rufus Backed Hawk Eagle and the Fishing Eagle. In the evenings, Jungle Fowl called the hour. If you stayed beyond sunset, the only danger was that you could encounter bison (Gaur) as you walked home. That encounter was not something to look forward to as I discovered one day. Mercifully, I was walking softly and the wind was in my face, so the Gaur was as startled as I was. He snorted, spun on his heel, and vanished, crashing through the undergrowth. I was very fortunate.

The more time I spent with myself, the clearer it became that it is important to be ‘friends’ with yourself. The more you are self-aware and comfortable internally, the more you can enjoy the world outside. When you are not aware of what is happening to you inside or are unhappy with decisions you have taken, or with your own internal processes, the unhappier you are likely to be with your surroundings. The normal tendency is to blame the outer world, but if one looks within, it is possible to find the solution. One rider however, that you will find only if you seek and only if you have the courage to recognize what you see. That is where sometimes the matter remains unresolved. Not because there is no solution. But because we are unwilling to accept the solution or to implement it.

Time for another dip, then climb into the hammock and gently swing in the breeze that comes blowing over the water. Those were the days……………………


Structure and Focus

Structure and Focus

Balance passion and system – Passion without system burns out.
System without passion creates bureaucracy. 
But together they can change the world

All the passion in the world will get you nowhere if you don’t create a step by step strategy to achieve your goals and then focus on each step, one by one. Work smart. Not everything is equally important. Sometimes what we don’t like to do is more important than what we like to do. For example, rigorous number crunching in a business plan is more important than inspirational prose regarding the aims and objectives of the project. But most creative people hate numbers. So, hate them, but do them. You don’t have to like them. But you must do them if you want to achieve what you like. So also in a marriage. There will be things that you don’t like about your spouse, but you must accept them because the good outweighs the bad. Someone asked Arthur Hailey (I think it was him) the secret of writing. He answered, ‘Writing.’ I say the same when they ask me, ‘How did you write so many books?’ I say, ‘By writing.’ Structure is the key to success no matter how tired in you may feel. So, channel the passion into the structure of a time-bound roadmap and then focus on following it faithfully.

Structure is the proof that you have faith in your goal. The farmer digs irrigation channels (structure) before the coming of the monsoon rain so that the water will be led to the right place – to the roots of his plants. His digging is proof that he believes that the rain will come and that he is serious about success, because without the irrigation channels the rain will simply run off the land and do him no good. In that case his crop would have failed not because it did not rain but because he did not dig the irrigation channels.
I decided in 1983 that I wanted to be a specialist in Leadership Development. I spent the next eleven years studying leadership and practicing how to teach. I did not take a single day’s vacation from 1983 to 1994. I negotiated with my employer to give me fifteen days of unpaid leave in addition to my 35 days of annual vacation. These fifty days I would spend going from place to place, traveling third class by train (wooden plank for a seat), learning how to teach, from the different friends who agreed to allow me into their classes. In the class, I would quietly sit in a corner and take notes and then discuss with the trainer what he/she did and why. Sometimes they would allow me to teach a module and would critique what I did. I asked them to let me accompany them to client meetings so that I could observe and learn to negotiate. I learnt what to do and what not to do. I did not simply copy my mentors. I asked myself, ‘How can I do this better than they are doing?’ And guess what? Sometimes I managed to do it better. For all this work, I made less than Rs. 2000 collectively as an income over eleven years. But I acquired an education that has served me ever since.
I also decided that I needed a formal education in business management with a degree, but I had neither the money nor the time for it, as I was married and had to support myself and my wife. So, I did an Executive MBA at the IIM-A (Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad) which gave me a saleable qualification at a lower price and time in the premier business school in India. I learnt that in some things the name is very important because most people can’t get past a name to let you show them what you can do. So, having a name that opens doors is very useful. This applies to schools, employers, clients, addresses, and teachers. However even for that, I was so poor that I had to sell my car and borrow the rest of the money for the fees from a friend. My employer agreed to loan me 50% of the fee at 8.3% interest and to give me leave without pay for the duration of the course, provided I signed a three-year bond to return to them and work. I agreed and kept my word even though I wondered at the justice of this agreement. But as soon as my bonded period was over, I exercised my freedom and left. Two years later, I set up my practice as an independent consultant. While I was with them, I applied everything I learnt; not only to benefit them but also to get enough practice. I kept records of what I did and in 2008 it became a book.
Create a structure and focus on following that structure, step by step. Don’t get distracted along the way. Don’t give in to what you like but do what must be done whether you like it or not because you realize the value of it in the long run. Keep your word even if you don’t like doing it because keeping your word is about you, not about them. Focus on what you will gain and everything else will become easy. That is the ticket. The key is to take pleasure in the journey. For the journey is the destination.